How to Buy Fresh Beer and Why it Matters
I hear you've been getting into beer lately: going to the local beer bar, maybe road-tripping to a brewery or two, and picking up bottles of all the different beer styles you can find. I applaud you! You make my career in the beer industry possible and I consider you an American patriot. But then one day you pick up Stone Brewing's Enjoy By IPA and suddenly there's a downward tumble of questions: why do I have to drink this beer by a certain date? Does beer go bad? Have I been drinking spoiled beer? Should I go to a doctor?!
Calm down, you're fine. Beer is certainly perishable, but it won't spoil in the way, say, a quart of milk does. Beer past its expiration date isn't unhealthy, but it is sad and not delicious. Today, I'm here to guide you through the ins and outs of buying fresh beer.
Beer tastes best fresh. Full stop. Such a small number of beers taste better with age, that it's not even worth throwing a 'most' into that statement. Beer tastes best fresh. What gets me excited about beer is the vivid brightness of fresh beer flavors. Tasting a week-old IPA and getting the clear impression of oranges, pine, and pineapple, or drinking a fresh hefeweizen and really tasting banana: those are some of the best beer drinking experiences there are. Of course, freshness can't make any bad beer taste good, but staleness can make any beer taste muddled and lame.
Beer has four main enemies: light, heat, oxygen, and time. All beers are exposed to each of these to some extent—there is no universal defense against them. It's similar to the way the aromas and flavors of the ground spices in your cabinet can fade over time...and then it gets worse. The longer a beer remains undrunk, the more its flavors dull, then disappear, and are eventually replaced with the skunky aroma of light-struck beer, or the cardboard and cooking-sherry flavors of oxidization.
So, you're at your local bottle shop picking up some beer. You should be thinking about time first: nine out of ten beers are getting worse the longer they stay in the bottle. Hoppy beers in particular lose a significant amount of aroma, and oxygen starts ravaging the beer, making it taste like cardboard or cooking sherry. Your move: always look for "bottled on" dates printed on the label or bottle. Different beers, of course, age differently, but a good rule of thumb is that beer will taste best in its first 30 days in a bottle. If the label says that beer has been in the bottle more than 90 days, avoid that gnarly stuff.
Some bottles will have "Enjoy by" dates instead of bottling dates. These are better than nothing, but they can be deceptive because there's no indication of how long it's been since the bottle was filled. Packaging codes are intentionally unreadable, which is a huge bummer. (And plenty of excellent breweries, such as Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas, use them.) If you can't tell how fresh the beer you're looking at is, consider where you are. Does beer sell fast at the shop you're visiting? Can a salesperson estimate when they got that beer in? How close is the brewery to where you're buying beer? These will give you hints about freshness, but you're better off with that 'bottled on' date.
Alright, beer detectives. Once you've considered the beer's age, look at temperature. Again, hoppy beers in particular are very fragile, so don't buy IPA off a warm shelf. Higher alcohol, less hoppy beers can do OK at room temperature, but as far as maintaining freshness, cold is always better. Letting beer warm up to room temp and then cooling it down again isn't the best thing for beer, but it's better than letting it stay warm, so don't stress out about whether or not your beer is going bad on the car ride home. Brown glass and a six pack carrier does a fairly good job of protecting beer from light, but anything sitting in direct sunlight is not going to taste like it should. If your local shop stores beer bottles next to a window, find a new local shop.
Drinking beer at a bar? Finding fresh beer on tap is a little trickier. Most servers and bartenders aren't able to tell you the date that the keg was filled, so I find the best way to get fresh beer is choose beer from local breweries. At HenHouse, we start delivering beer the same day we fill kegs and so we can get very fresh beer on tap very quickly. Beer traveling across the country goes by truck or by train, and that takes a couple of weeks. If you're seeking fresh beer and opting for local breweries, you might end up surprised by how many kick-ass breweries are right in your backyard. One more tip: Never be afraid to ask for a taste of a beer on tap before you get a full pour. This is your chance to see if the beer is stale before you buy a pint.
Many people will tell you that beer styles make a big difference in how fresh you should drink a beer. That's a little misleading. Most brewers release beer when they feel it is ready to drink. Certainly, Belgian tripels, imperial stouts, and barleywines age more gracefully than IPAs, but in many cases the brewer has taken caring of the aging process for you. What's more, many breweries pasteurize their beer, which limits the beer's potential for aging. Do your research before you start investing in beers to cellar. And crack a fresh bottle before you lay one down so you have a baseline to compared the aged version to. Curious about cellaring beer? Start with this guide from Mike Reis if you're thinking of building up your collection.
When you're buying beer, I encourage you to be picky. You're spending your hard-earned cash on good beer because you want to enjoy it, so make sure you're getting the most for your money. If you check dates and only buy from cold boxes, your chances for deliciousness greatly improve. We live in a golden age of brewing where 90% of Americans live within 15 miles of a brewery, so go meet your locals and buy six packs from them. They'll appreciate it more than you know.
About the Author: Collin McDonnell is the co-founder of the HenHouse Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA.